Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha on Tuesday defended a police crackdown and arrest of 16 demonstrators who sought to meet him and deliver a letter of protest against a proposed coal-fired power plant.
The arrests took place Monday when Prayuth arrived in Songkhla province to visit the Deep South before chairing an out-of-office cabinet meeting.
He told reporters on Tuesday that about 100 demonstrators did not follow the law that restricts public gathering and refused to accept a forum designed for them to voice opinions regarding the proposed 2,200-megawatt project.
“In fact, no one can blame the government of violating citizens’ rights because we have the Public Gathering Act they did not follow. We asked them to seek permission,” Prayuth said. “We sent representatives to meet but they refused and they refused to attend any forum, stubborn all the way."
Prayuth accused the protesters of obstructing government officials and said they could be charged with violating the law that bans gatherings of more than five people.
“I doubt they needed to meet me in person before the media, which could exaggerate the issue,” he said, adding that the National Energy Committee will decide the project’s fate.
The Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand plans to build three coal-fired power plants valued at more than 100 billion baht (U.S. $3.1 billion) on beaches in Songkhla, Pattani and Krabi provinces, prompting resistance from locals and environmentalists.
Scuffle leads to injuries
On Friday, about 100 villagers led by local leaders and environmentalists started walking from the proposed plant site at Bangling beach in Songkhla, hoping to meet Prayuth during a Monday dinner or while he was meeting with his cabinet on Tuesday.
When the protesters arrived near the ministerial venues Monday afternoon, they were stopped by about 200 police, volunteers and military security forces, leading to a half-hour scuffle.
“Three people were injured in the scuffle and 16 were arrested and taken to the police station in Songkhla’s Muang district. The rest, mostly women, retreated to Khan Seng mosque,” Banjong Nasae, a private fishery conservationist who observed the rally, told BenarNews. “They did not instigate violence they just wanted to meet with the prime minister.”
Demonstrators said their letter to Prayuth pointed out that 1,000 people would be relocated if the project is approved and another 20,000 people within 5 km (3.1 miles) would be affected by pollution.
A demonstrator said villagers did not expect any official to honestly listen to their concerns.
“We – villagers who would be affected by the plant and a deep sea port nearby – were upbeat as we thought we could see (Prayuth) and submit our complaint without going to Bangkok,” UThai To-Lee, a member of opposition group “No Coal in Songkhla-Pattani” told BenarNews.
“But our mission is not over yet. We will fight to have those arrested absolved. We will protect to save our homeland from the coal plant and the deep sea port,” he said.
On Tuesday, police Maj. Gen. Ronasilp Poosara, who has jurisdiction in the region, said 16 protesters, including a 16-year-old boy, were charged with assault which carries a maximum sentence of three years. They could also be charged with violating the 2015 public gathering law.
Rights officials demand release of protesters
National human rights officials spoke out against the arrests.
National Human Rights Commissioner Tuenjai Deetes called on the government to immediately release the 16 suspects, adding that the government must respect and protect human rights. She demanded that people be given the right to address their concerns over public policy.
Another commissioner expressed concern about the protest.
“We saw two contrasting pictures from what happened yesterday. The people who support the project were welcomed while the opposition was thwarted. I am concerned about the discrimination,” Angkhana Neelapaijit told BenarNews.
Meanwhile, MARA Patani spokesman Abu Hafez Al-Hakim issued a statement Tuesday warning the government about negative repercussions.
“The government has again failed to demonstrate its openness to listen to the plight of its people. Thailand is a free country, a land of free people. As guaranteed by the constitution, the people has every right to determine what they want or do not want for themselves,” Abu Hafez said.
MARA Patani is a panel representing Deep South insurgent groups in peace talks with the government.
“We … remind the government that to proceed against the wish of the people and respond with iron fists will not only worsen the situation, but may cause an undesirable outcome, ,” Abu said.